Q&A: The causes and consequences of Michael Flynn’s NSC exit


Happier times: Michael Flynn is all smiles as Vladimir Putin and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein applaud at the 10th anniversary gala for Russia’s international propaganda outlet, RT.

I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:

Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?

A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.

The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.

Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?

A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.

With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.


Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak speaks at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO photo)

Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?

A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.

Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?

A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.

Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?

A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.

Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?

A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.

If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.

The rise of Trump explained in four graphics


How did he get this far this quickly?

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign by gliding down the golden escalators of Trump Tower, with paid extras hired from the New York theater community to pad the crowd size, it was easy to dismiss the real estate mogul as a self-promoting dilettante more interested in publicity than politics.

So many people got it so wrong. His Republican rivals, in the famous words of George W. Bush, “misunderestimated” him. The Pundit Elite kept predicting that just one more embarrassing gaffe would extinguish his White House hopes. The nation’s best newspapers kept churning out damning investigative pieces questioning Trump’s business acumen, his honesty, his ethics, his wild flip-flops on issues and his command of basic knowledge of the world ~ and it seemed to matter nary a bit.

Historians will be discussing the Trump phenomenon for decades. Yet here we are, the general election upon us. How did Donald Trump, a political neophyte and nearly lifelong Democrat, emerge as the self-proclaimed champion of conservative values, the master of the Republican National Committee, and the voice of angry white people?

It’s easy to oversimplify Trump’s appeal, but I’d like to try to explain the rise of Trump in four informational graphics.

#1: Americans have grown increasingly alienated from major institutions


Until the 1960s — amid Vietnam, civil rights struggles and social unrest — Americans had almost universally positive views about basic institutions in U.S. society. The trend has been downward ever since. But there has been a significant drop in the past decade in institutions as diverse as religion, schools, banking, the news business, the courts, and, of course, the Congress. There are two major reasons: self-inflicted wounds, such as congressional dysfunction and the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, and a partisan media led by Fox News, which has made it a constant theme of its programming to tear down institutions in order to rebuild America in its ideological image. Donald Trump positioned himself as the champion of the “little guy” against all the big, bad institutions — from Wall Street, to the news media, to big business, to the “rigged” Congress and court system … even against the Pentagon generals who know less about military strategy than the reality-TV star.

#2: There has been a rapid, dramatic shift to the left on social issues


Within the past decade, the United States reached a tipping point on social issues. On gay rights, the nation went from strong opposition to same-sex marriage to overwhelming support for the new reality that was blessed in 2013 and 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger generation — Democrat, Republican and those disgusted with both parties — is almost unanimously in favor of social change that affects women (“no means no”), gays (“marriage equality”) and the environment (climate change is real, not a Chinese-inspired hoax). This rapid shift has proven to be disconcerting to many older people, particularly men, who cling to (no, not their guns and bibles) their now-unpopular views. They want to say no to social change. Trump says they’re right. And he says that he’s their voice.

#3: We’ve seen a partisan reversal on globalization


For decades, Democrats were the protectionists and Republicans were the free-traders. Democrats, influenced by labor unions and environmentalists, resisted trade liberalization as bad for workers and the environment. Republicans embraced globalism and immigration as good for business, good for America, and, ultimately, a net plus for American workers.

Not any more. The Republican Party, radically altered by a massive influx of middle-aged white men displaced by a global economy for which they no longer have the requisite skill set, has become the party of protectionism and economic nationalism. They see immigrants as a threat to American jobs and American values.

Democrats and independents are now more open to international economic liberalization than the Republican Party, the traditional home of the U.S. business community. Trump is the big winner in this new reality. His “America First” backers crushed the internationalist Republicans like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and are challenging Democratic dominance in the nation’s economically distressed industrial heartland.

#4: People now get political information from self-selected partisan sources


We live in parallel information universes. Left-of-center Americans rely on a mix of CNN, NPR, MSNBC and the New York Times for their political and government news. Most of those news outlets present news from a predictably liberal mindset. Right-of-center Americans overwhelming rely on Fox News and local radio for their information. Fox and the Rush/Hannity/Coulter axis is not just conservative, it is almost anarchic in its desire to tear down institutions of the “elites” and the “establishment” while advocating for the grievances of whites who feel they are innocent victims of racial minorities, immigrants, non-Christian religions, China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Israel, Mexico, NATO … you name it.

The result of this Great Information Divide is that facts have become obsolete. The news of the left may be biased, but it is rooted in objective fact. Nonpartisan fact-checking websites can tell you how often politicians tell you the truth or lie to you. The news of the right has increasingly become resistant to globally accepted facts (evolution, climate change) and has allowed the virus of “fake news,” often generated in countries like Russia and Macedonia, to infiltrate the political mainstream. As Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said after Fox News retracted a false story that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted, “The damage was done.”

Social media has exacerbated the divide. Citizens follow information sources on Twitter and Facebook that confirm their preconceptions of reality. This has become the first post-fact-check presidential election. Trump, with his finger on the “tweet” button of his smartphone and a knack for creating viral content, is the perfect politician for this moment in history.

Movie night at Tsinghua: All the President’s Men

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

I held my first “movie night” for my Chinese journalism grad students on Sunday night. After considering a few journalism-related classics (you can probably guess which they are), I chose one that highlights the best of journalism: “All the President’s Men.” It’s not just a journalism movie, of course. It’s a great detective story and an all-around outstanding movie with crisp writing, superb acting and tension-inducing directing. “All the President’s Men” is important journalism history. It’s also important American history. But I discovered as I played the video that many of the uniquely American topics (and 1970s cultural norms) contained in the movie were difficult to understand for my Tsinghua University students. So, in addition to playing the movie with English subtitles (do you realize how quickly Dustin Hoffman speaks, with that nasal accent of his?), I occasionally paused the movie for verbal annotations. Here are some of the important points I needed to explain to the students:

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

Newspaper references:

  • Why Ben Bradlee and many American journalists curse a lot
  • How Ben Bradlee cursed on live national TV when I hosted him as a speaker at a National Press Club luncheon in 2005
  • What kind of a boss Ben Bradlee was to my wife Pam Tobey
  • Who Deep Throat was and what motivated him to leak
  • Where the real Bob Woodward/Mark Felt garage was located
  • How the movie’s producers created a replica of the Washington Post’s newsroom in Hollywood for the movie — and the Post newsroom looked exactly the same when my wife Pam began working there in 1984
  • Why reporters call the targets of their stories for comment before publishing the story
  • Why it was unethical when Carl Bernstein called the secretary in the Miami prosecutor’s office and pretended he was someone he was not
  • Why Watergate motivated me (and the entire Woodstein generation) to become reporters

Cultural references:

  • Why all of the editors in the Post’s budget meetings were men
  • What a manual typewriter is (or was) and why they were all over the newsroom
  • Why I took Mrs. Wolin’s typing class at Central High when everybody said that typing was for girls who wanted to become secretaries. (Of course, I wanted to learn to type so I could become a reporter.)
  • Who Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are
  • What the movie “Deep Throat” was about and why Woodward’s editor chose it as a code name for Mark Felt
  • What John Mitchell was talking about when he said Katharine Graham would get a certain part of anatomy caught in a wringer
  • What a “creep” means and why CREEP became the acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President
  • Why so many people smoked in public spaces

Political references:

  • Who John F. Kennedy was and why his photo was in Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate
  • The fact that JFK and his brother Bobby were assassinated
  • Why the Vietnam War was so unpopular and why American society was torn apart by war, riots and civil rights struggles
  • What the Pentagon Papers are
  • Richard Nixon’s unique definition of “plumbers”
  • Who Daniel Ellsberg is and why he had a psychiatrist
  • Who George Wallace and Arthur Bremer were and how Woodward worked with Felt on stories about the Wallace assassination attempt
  • Who the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami are
  • What the Bay of Pigs is/was
  • The long and sordid history of CIA scandals
  • Why there is tension between the FBI and the CIA
  • Why Nixon hated and feared the Kennedys
  • What Chappaquiddick was
  • Why George McGovern asked Tom Eagleton to leave the ticket in ’72
  • Why Nixon wanted to run against McGovern and not Ted Kennedy or Edmund Muskie
  • Why Ed Muskie “cried” in New Hampshire
  • What a “Canuck” is

Any suggestions for my next American journalism movie night?